When the town of Middletown, New Jersey lost 34 of its residents in the World Trade Center attacks, residents tried to put aside their political and personal squabbles and come together for the good of the families of the victims and the town itself. In the process many residents found they were building something everyone agreed Middletown had always lacked – a sense of community. Jesse Wegman reports on the difficulties the town has experienced trying to keep the momentum going.
CURWOOD: The cleanup and search for remains at Ground Zero is coming to a symbolic end, almost nine months after the World Trade Center attacks. New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, will honor rescue workers and remember the victims in a ceremony to be held May 30th.
While the physical dimensions of the disaster can be measured in number of lives lost and tons of debris removed, the emotional wreckage is harder to tally. We sent producer Jesse Wegman to Middletown, New Jersey. Its a commuter town outside New York City where the events of September 11th hit hard. Hes found that the attacks have changed Middletown in ways its residents could never have imagined.
[SOUND OF OCEAN WAVES]
WEGMAN: On a clear day, you can stand on the beach in Middletown, New Jersey and see the skyline of New York City, 25 miles to the north.
GILBERT: Straight across here would be Staten Island. And then you would take the Verazzano Bridge over into Brooklyn. So, beyond the Verazzano Bridge is where those towers were.
WEGMAN: Jim Gilbert was getting his morning coffee at Peppercorns Deli on September 11th, when news came over the radio that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. He started to worry because his wife Allyson was at a business meeting in Manhattan. So he drove down here to the beach to see what he could see.
GILBERT: Basically, the only thing that you could really see from this location was the smoke. And walking up and down the beach, after it happened, you could just smell the smoke. You could smell the odor across the river and the bay.
[SOUND OF TRAIN WHISTLE]
WEGMAN: On September 11th, Allyson Gilbert parked her car at the Middletown Rail Station to make the hour-long commute into what everyone here calls "the city." Thousands of Middletown residents take that ride everyday. So it was not surprise the town lost some of its population in the terrorist attack.
But concern turned to dread later that night when Middletown Police counted nearly 200 unclaimed cars in the train stations parking lot. Most of the cars were picked up over the next few days as residents who had been stranded in Manhattan made their way back to Middletown. Allyson Gilbert was one of them. But she knew that plenty of others werent coming home.
GILBERT: Youd be at the bridge and youd hear, "Oh, do you know this person is lost?" And, "Dan, we havent heard from this person." So youd hear, slowly, day by day, little trickles of information that youre not sure, is it exactly right? It is correct? Is it not correct? And it really wasnt until we went to the police that we actually had, or felt like we had, a firm confirmed list of names.
WEGMAN: Names like Patrick Hoey and Steven Cangialosi and Lorraine Del Carmen Antigua. Middletown lost 34 residents in the Trade Center, one of the largest single town death tolls outside New York City. Most of the dead were young. Most were men with families, who left the city years ago to make a life in the suburbs.
MINERVINO: My husband Louis worked on the 98th floor of One World Trade Center. He worked for a company called Marsh McLennan.
WEGMAN: Barbara and Louis Minervino moved to a small ranch house in Middletown 20 years ago to raise their daughters, Laina and Marissa. Laina also worked for Marsh McLennan in the companys mid-town offices. Everyday, she and her father would ride the 6:51 into the city.
MINERVINO: On the morning of the 11th, she would also fall asleep on his shoulder on the train. And he had to wake her up. And he woke her up, and he said, "Ill see you later." And thats the last she saw her father.
WEGMAN: Barbara turned on the television that morning and feared the worst. She tried to call her husband, but there was no answer. So she called Laina.
MINERVINO: Then I told her, "You have to come home. Daddys dead. Theyre all dead." So the company sent her home in a limousine. And she was one of the last people over the bridge. She watched the towers fall.
WEGMAN: Because Louis put in long hours at work, the Minervinos didnt socialize much. And they didnt get to know their neighbors very well. But in the days after September 11th, an endless stream of visitors came to Barbara Minevinos home. They were neighbors, colleagues, her daughters old nursery school teachers, and people she didnt even know.
MINERVINO: Everyone on this block has come to my house, has offered services, expressed their sympathy, brought food. And everybody thinks that because the name is Minervino, they have to make baked ziti. At one point, we had eight trays of baked ziti. And its very nice. Its not a point to say we didnt appreciate the food. But after a while, how much baked ziti can we eat?
WEGMAN: Barbara says the kindness was overwhelming, and unexpected.
MINERVINO: I can tell you that no one on the block spoke to one another, other than waving, before the 11th. And in the bank, or in line in the grocery store, there are people that actually come up to me, and give me a hug, and I dont know who they are. That is different. I dont know how long itll last. But its okay. Its really nice now.
WEGMAN: Nice, for sure. But, the outpouring of compassion was also significant because it seemed to mark a turning point for this town. Middletown is not known as a place with a strong sense of community. Some would say it has no community, period. Thats not what people come here for.
Like many commuter towns, Middletown appeals to people who value their privacy and whose lives exist, for the most part, somewhere else. Even the name, "Middletown," sounds like somewhere you pass through on your way from one place to another. And the main drag through Middletown is Route 35.
[SOUND OF TRAFFIC]
WEGMAN: Route 35 is a heavily traveled, four-lane highway, lined with strip malls and big box chain stores. It cuts a swath through the suburbs of central Jersey, the kinds of places Randall Gabrielan knows well.
GABRIELAN: Notice how close together the houses are and how so many of them are new.
WEGMAN: Randall Gabrielan heads Middletowns Historical Society. And hes giving me a tour of the area. Its a driving tour, because driving is about the only way anyone gets anywhere in Middletown. You drive from home to the train station, from the post office to the supermarket, from the high school to the Burger King.
Few people walk in Middletown, in part because its so big, almost 41 square miles. But also for a more obvious reason; the township has almost no sidewalks.
GABRIELAN: Well, basically, business in this town is conducted on the highways.
WEGMAN: Thats how its been since the 1950s, when improved rail service and the construction of the Garden State Parkway quadrupled the population of little communities along the Jersey shore. People came down from Brooklyn, and Queens, and Staten Island. Farmland and pasture gave way to split-levels and manicured lawns.
GABRIELAN: As time went on, and the houses were larger and more expensive, you may have gotten a different economic social profile of the residents.
WEGMAN: About 66,000 people live in Middletown today. Some, like rock singer Jon Bon Jovi and TV star Connie Chung, keep homes in the swankier part of town, along the Navesink River. Not far away fishermen scrape out a living from their shanties near the bay.
But most Middletown homes belong to middleclass families, ones in which both parents leave for work before the sun rises, and get home after it sets. Families might know each other casually through their childrens school activities. Other than that, people pretty much keep to themselves.
But in the days after September 11th, something began to change here. A new sound could be heard around town [Knocking], the sound of neighbors getting to know each other.
[CONVERSATION, TWO FEMALES]
WEGMAN: The group most responsible for this turnaround is called "Middletown friends assisting victims of terror," better known as "FAVOR." Today, its members are dropping off a food basket for a victims family. FAVOR formed days after September 11th, when Allyson Gilbert and her friend Janet Dluhi were searching for a way, any way, to help.
The knew theyd never be able to raise large amounts of money. So they came up with a different idea.
[SOUND OF CONVERSATION IN BACKGROUND]
GILBERT: What we thought was that, when the budget is strained in a household, all those seeming extras -- dance lessons, baseball -- would get cut. And so we didnt want that to happen. And one of those extras, we thought, was going out on a Friday night for pizza, or going to the movies, those kinds of things.
So that was a really big push to get all these people to try to donate that, so we could at least retain that normalcy of what their activities were.
WEGMAN: FAVOR started contacting Middletown businesses and residents, asking them to donate goods and services. The response was astounding. Everyone had something to give; from pizza parlors and movie theaters, to plumbers and dry cleaners. Even the local pet therapist offered her services. Every week, the women who coordinate the effort would meet to plan events.
WEGMAN: In other parts of Middletown, high school students volunteered to baby-sit and rake their neighbors lawns. People offered to help write letters, take their dog for a walk, or the kids out fishing. Even the police helped deliver food to peoples homes. Allyson Gilbert says she never could have predicted the result.
GILBERT: Taking care of people. Like, the definition, typically, has been, "write the check." But, what weve kind of learned is thats not-- it has nothing to do with the money. Because, in essence, what happened is, had we been able to give them the check, that would have been great. We talked about that. Give them $100,000 would be great. But I wouldnt have known any of them. And there wouldnt have been any relationship. It would have been, "Heres your check. Go home and drown your sorrows."
But now, at least you feel like we took care of them in a different way, which is the more daily, little thought things. And there will be a lot of relationships that have kind of come together as a result of that.
CHEVALIER: Ill just show you the end part.
WEGMAN: Across town, on a hill overlooking Middletowns exclusive Navesink River Road, Brittany Chevalier stands in front of a large TV in her living room and plays me a videotape of a September 11th benefit concert.
CHEVALIER: And this random guy came up to us at the end and just put his arm around me. See, Bruce comes over.
WEGMAN: Bruce is Bruce Springsteen, a local resident, and new favorite of Brittanys.
CHEVALIER: Its pretty cool.
WEGMAN: Shes 15. And when she talks about getting up on stage and singing with a rock star, she sounds like any 15-year-old.
CHEVALIER: And then Bruce Springsteen gives me a kiss on the cheek. So, I love the part where -- right there!
WEGMAN: Brittany stops sounding like a 15-year-old when she sits down on the couch to talk about her brother, Swede. Swede worked and died at the World Trade Center. Brittany says counseling she got at school was helpful. But she wanted to connect with kids her own age. And she felt other kids wanted that, too.
So Brittany and her friend Brad Smith, whose father was also killed in the towers, started a group called "Teens for Teens." Every few weeks, Brittany and Brad gather a dozen or so teenagers from the area who lost a loved one in the attacks.
CHEVALIER: You know, when youre put in a room, like Ive been put in a room, like in a group of kids-- that youre just put into a room, and youre told to, like, speak your feelings. And, you dont know these kids. You dont really feel comfortable. And like I hate that feeling.
So the idea was to just have a very comfortable atmosphere where we could do stuff together, like go to the mall, or were going to Liberty Science Center. So I mean, its just a way for us to feel comfortable, to get to know each other, and for us to have fun, and get back to our normal lives, even though theyre never going to be the same.
WEGMAN: From Teens for Teens, to FAVOR, to hundreds of small acts of kindness, a new mood seemed to be spreading over Middletown in the weeks following September 11th. Squabbles over zoning matters were put aside. Candidates for mayor quit sniping at each other. Teachers put a threatened strike on hold. Middletowns police chief John Pollinger noticed a change, too.
[SOUND OF TRAFFIC]
POLLINGER: Accidents went down, motor vehicles violations dropped off.
WEGMAN: The towns notorious drivers were slowing down, being more courteous.
POLLINGER: Thats by barometer of the traffic flow, and the aggressiveness of people driving, and the selfishness of "I have to get where I need to go no matter whos in my way," or what you need to do.
WEGMAN: But just two months after September 11th, Middletown had another crisis to confront, and the towns newfound sense of community was strained to the breaking point.
[CLAPPING AND CHANTING]
NEWS REPORT: So far, 47 teachers have been jailed, and hundreds more could face a similar fate.
WEGMAN: In November, the dam holding back tensions between Middletown teachers and the school board burst. Salary levels and healthcare contributions were the sticking points in the long and contentious dispute. And finally, the teachers went on strike. When they refused to return to work, they were carted off to jail, 228 teachers in all. In post-September 11th Middletown, the walkout didnt sit well with many residents.
[SOUND OF TRAFFIC]
POLLINGER: Personally? I think the timing couldnt have been worse.
WEGMAN: Police Chief John Pollinger.
POLLINGER: When you had people who suffered as greatly as they did in the community, and you have the economy which was slumping at the time, and is still recovering, to loudly complain and stamp your feet and say, "I want a raise. And if you dont, Im closing the school," well you picked the wrong time. Im sorry.
WEGMAN: A lot of people in Middletown shared Chief Pollingers sentiments. The strike split the community. And much of the goodwill that had emerged after September 11th vanished. In the same way the town pulled together to take care of victims families, some residents turned an intense anger toward the teachers.
[SOUND OF CLASSROOM]
WEGMAN: Jacqueline Pfennig teaches biology at Thorn Middle School. She was born and raised in Middletown and has been a teacher here for 33 years. She says shes devastated and angry by the reaction of many parents to the strike. And, she says the positive feelings that spread across town after September 11th didnt reach everyone.
At the stores where Barbara Minervino still gets hugs from strangers, teachers like Jackie Pfennig get a hard time.
PFENNIG: We cant go to the supermarket without being harassed by people in line, if they know youre a teacher. Heaven forbid, someone finds out that youre a Middletown teacher. You cant jog down the street. We shop out of Middletown now. How is that? I mean, Im a lifelong resident. I always give my business to Middletown businesses. I have to go to the food store outside of Middletown. Its not okay what happened. And we are not better.
WEGMAN: In their search for common ground, Middletown residents realized they were still on pretty shaky ground. Before long, the pendulum swung back. The police chief noted the traffic problems were on the rise again. On front lawns, signs about zoning disputes started replacing American flags and "United We Stand" banners.
Old conflicts resurfaced, including a row over a developers proposal to create the one thing everyone agrees Middletown doesnt have, a town center.
WEGMAN: At a zoning board meeting, hundreds of residents turn out. Some wear red shirts. Others wear green. Green is for, red is against. And the issue is a plan to build, from scratch, whats being called "Town Square at Middletown," a prefabricated downtown, complete with stores, restaurants, a skating rink, a main street, and a village green.
AZZOLINA: I love Middletown. But growing up, there was just nowhere to go, and nothing to do.
[SOUND OF OUTDOORS]
WEGMAN: Joe Azzolina is one of the local developers pushing for the Town Center. He and his partner Phil Scaduto say that, after September 11th, its even more important for residents to have a place to gather.
SCADUTO: Its a great place to live. I mean, we enjoyed it. We were here our whole lives. In fact, we raise our families here now. But one of the things it really lacks in the community is a central place where people can come together for good times, and also to share in bad times.
And, we dont have an identity as far as a core place in the community that allows that to happen. For instance, in Middletown right now, we dont even have a community area where we can light our township Christmas tree during the holidays. Our current place is in the middle of the jug handle right up the highway. We want to create a sense of place where the entire community can come to one location, and say, "This is our town."
WEGMAN: While the town center idea has caught on with many Middletowners, not everyones buying it.
[SOUND OF TRAFFIC]
ROGERS: This rather ugly, yellow, dumpy-looking house is mine.
WEGMAN: The dumpy-looking house is the oldest in Middletown, a small Dutch farmhouse off Kings Highway East, well over 300 years old. Its the home of Bettie Rogers. She came to Middletown in 1958, when Route 35 was a two-lane road without a median strip.
Today, her house is just two blocks from the proposed town center. So naturally shes concerned about potential traffic problems and the loss of open space. But shes also skeptical of the developers claim that Middletown is missing something by not having a central gathering place.
ROGERS: I think the people who are for it have been more or less sold some kind of ideal picture of people walking around there, and meeting their neighbors, and strolling around, and sitting outside in sidewalk cafes. I dont know that that would happen. I cant see people driving down there to do that.
WEGMAN: Local historian Randall Gabrielan doesnt understand the desire to create a town center either. Some people, he says, may wish they had a traditional town. But Middletown just didnt develop that way, he says, and theres nothing wrong with that.
[SOUND OF TRAFFIC]
GABRIELAN: Most people live in newer areas on suburban lots where we have our half, three-quarters, our acre of plots. And we drive to everything. And we knew that would be the case when we came here. And we like it.
WEGMAN: Still, the proposal to create a Town Center is starting to find acceptance even among people initially opposed to the idea, like Police Chief, John Pollinger. Pollinger grew up in Middletown, bought his first house here, and has never left. Pollinger was, at first, concerned about the traffic and other problems that yet another shopping complex would create.
POLLINGER: But then I looked at it. I said, "The towns on either side of us are developing like crazy. Theyre getting tax revenues." If you want to go to a real nice restaurant, people go out of time. This will give Middletown an identity. And I think its a great idea. Ive changed my mind. I think its a great idea now. Traffic is going to be here whether that thing is developed or not. So, you know what? Why not have it here?
WEGMAN: Since Chief Pollinger joined the force, Middletowns crime rate has dropped to the third lowest in the nation for towns of its size, giving the chief time to attend to even the smallest detail.
[SOUND OF POLICE RADIO]
POLLINGER: I just want to go up on the beach here for a second. We have a baby seal whos stranded on the beach. And I think one of my officers is down here. I just want to check on him. Its one of the things we do.
[SOUND OF CAR DOOR, OCEAN WAVES]
POLLINGER: Oh, theres our little baby. Hi, sweetheart. Hes hoping its not in any distress or pain. But, shell be in good hands in an hour or two. So youre going to hang out until they get here, right?
MALE OFFICER: Yes, sir.
POLLINGER: Okay, good. See you later.
WEGMAN: On his way back to the cruiser, Chief Pollinger glances to his left, across the bay toward Manhattan.
POLLINGER: Its eerie. This is the section of town I grew up in. And I used to come down here as a kid, swimming all the time. But even when I was down here yesterday, just driving around, you just look left, you look for the towers that arent there.
[SOUND OF CAR DOOR, DRIVING]
WEGMAN: During the ride back to police headquarters, I ask Chief Pollinger how September 11th has changed Middletown. He says hes not sure about those big picture questions. But he does tell me that his relationship with the town has changed dramatically.
POLLINGER: I had begun to think that I would retire at a certain point and move to Tennessee and fish for large mouth bass for the rest of my life. But September 11th changed that. And it made me finally look at myself in the mirror, and realize that theres no way I could retire, and theres no way I could leave Middletown township. Because its my home, and its my community, and its a place that I care deeply about. And I feel a sense of responsibility for the people who live here. And Im not going to leave.
WEGMAN: No doubt, September 11th has changed the lives of many individuals in Middletown. You can start with the families of victims, with the husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, and the more than 60 children who lost a parent that day.
As for the community of Middletown undergoing some fundamental change, well, most residents I asked seemed to want that to be true more than they thought that it was true. For the community of Middletown, real, lasting change is more likely something that happens out of range of the media spotlight. Something subtle and elusive that unfolds over time, like when a new train line lets people commute into the city, or when housing developments replace farmland, or, perhaps, when a town center is built.
Joy Rothman has raised three children in Middletown. Today, she runs a group that raises money for under-funded school projects. Usually, Joy Rothman doesnt hesitate to share her thoughts about Middletown. But when I ask her about the future, she adopts a cautious tone.
ROTHMAN: I think some wonderful things came out of the horrible tragedy of September 11th. We had a lot of families that lost loved ones; the children that lost parents. Its still hard to think about that. Sorry, I dont know where that came from. Its still very much--
But there have been really great things that happened. And, in a horrible way, it did pull some people together. Hopefully, we can keep some of the good momentum going.
WEGMAN: Do you think that will persist?
ROTHMAN: I have to have faith in human nature to believe that. I hope so.
[MUSIC: Bruce Springsteen, "My Hometown," BORN IN THE U.S.A. (Columbia 1985)]
WEGMAN: For Living on Earth, Im Jesse Wegman in Middletown, New Jersey.
CURWOOD: Our story on Middletown was edited and produced by Chris Ballman. Special thanks to New York Times reporter, Andrew Jenkins.
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